Some films demand a willing suspension of disbelief, expecting audiences to put aside quibbles of what’s plausible, probable or even possible. Roseanne Liang’s “Shadow in the Cloud” parts ways with credibility altogether. This insanely entertaining high-altitude horror movie — set almost entirely aboard a gremlin-infested WW2-era B-17 bomber — asks you to check your internal B.S. barometer on the runway, then takes off into murky skies, testing the limits at every turn. Hardly a minute of the movie registers as “realistic,” but that hardly matters, since Liang so fully commits to its over-the-top sensibility that you’ll be clutching the armrest and grinning with glee for most of the ride.
“Shadow in the Cloud” takes place in 1943, the same year Roald Dahl published “The Gremlins” and Warner Bros. released “Hare Raising,” a Merrie Melodies cartoon in which Bugs Bunny struggles to keep a cute little pest from crashing his Air Force plane into the ground. The movie kicks off with a similar Allied Air Force training film, a retro-style animated one-reeler warning pilots of the risk of such aeronautical nuisances — only the gremlins featured in this safety video aren’t nearly so adorable.
They’ll tear a plane apart in midair if the crew isn’t careful, the movie suggests, taking the idea of these havoc-wreakers to their most malevolent extreme — even more than that now-classic “Twilight Zone” episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” and repeated in the 1983 feature, two pop-culture touchstones that were obvious influences on Max Landis’ script, which Liang overhauled to suit her own agenda. Who knows what Landis (a talented yet troubled screenwriter who’s been canceled by the #MeToo movement) imagined for the movie, but Liang has turned this white-knuckle survival story into a compelling parable for all the crap women put up with from disrespectful dudes. Setting the film in 1943 allows the helmer to amplify the sexism, although most of what she depicts still goes on today — so that’s not the part that strains credibility.
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The movie stars tough, take-no-guff Chloë Grace Moretz as Women’s Auxiliary Air Force Capt. Maude Garrett — at least, that’s how she introduces herself, although Garrett’s true identity and the nature of her mission is a mystery for much of the film. (The opening getting-ready montage will make a lot more sense on second viewing, after the movie’s secrets have come to light.) Moretz was an inspired choice to play the lead in that she’s proved that she can kick ass (see 2010’s “Kick-Ass”), but doesn’t necessarily read that way on first glance (especially not with a bruised cheek and her arm in a sling).
As soon as Garrett steps aboard the B-17 Flying Fortress, aptly named “The Fool’s Errand,” the all-male crew starts to harass her. She’s been tasked with transporting a highly classified package, reminiscent of the glowing nuclear box in “Kiss Me Deadly,” and when she checks to make sure it’s secure at one point, the guys crack wise, “Oh, I got a big package for you right here, sweetheart.” Except for dreamy-eyed Staff Sgt. Walter Quaid (Taylor John Smith), these airmen are Stone Age jerks, referring to her as “dame” and “dolly.”
But Garrett’s more macho than they are: She can take the abuse and fly a plane, and when it comes time to open fire on a trio of Japanese fighters (because that’s another thing the stressed-out characters have to contend with on this wildly perilous flight), this “little missy” proves a better shot than any of them. Since she’s an unwelcome last-minute addition to the roster, the crew stick her in the Sperry, or ball turret — that dangling orb beneath the plane that’s hell on anyone with vertigo.
More than 40 minutes of the film take place in that rickety bubble, as Garrett tries to negotiate a modicum of respect from her comrades. As with the claustrophobic car ride in Charlie Kaufman’s recent “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” it’s a tall order to make this stretch tense and interesting, but Liang’s up to the challenge, focusing on the tricky gender politics as Garrett listens in to the men’s taunts, strategically deciding when to assert herself. And just when the pilot orders her to shut up, she sees it, curled up on the underside of the wing: a gremlin.
If ever there was a perfect opportunity for a director to hire Stan Winston Studio (the practical effects house behind “Aliens” and “Jurassic Park”) to create a terrifying on-camera monster that would make us think twice about flying ever again, this was it, although New Zealander Liang turns to the local digital gurus at Weta instead. The results is incredibly well-designed — a gross, bat-like bad dream with demonic eyes and long, hooked talons — but never really feels like it exists in the same frame as Moretz. Then again, the movie’s reality-bending tone helps there too, since audiences don’t have to believe to be freaked out.
It’s not clear why Garrett downplays the threat of the beast, even after it starts ripping into the bomber’s engines, but she’s got her hands full with enough other things — the verbal abuse of the crew, the turret coming detached and whatever’s inside that top-secret satchel — that the movie hardly relies on the gremlin to keep us interested. In fact, the project might have worked just fine without it, although the creature feels like the cherry on top this nutso sundae, turning a femme-powerment story into something berserk and unforgettable.
Does it make sense that Garrett’s fellow servicemen are so incompetent by comparison? Well, sort of, once you realize what’s inside the package — or more accurately, what those contents represent, since it’s a stretch too far to accept them on a literal level. Still, that case goes a long way to explain her superhuman behavior. “You have no idea how far I’ll go!” she screams at the gremlin before opening the hatch and crawling across the underside of the speeding B-17.
It’s ridonkulous, but no more so than any of the stunts Vin Diesel has pulled in the “Fast and Furious” movies. At a certain point, the unbelievability of it all becomes the fun — consider the gape-mouthed reaction shot one soldier gives to Garrett’s incredible reentry to the fuselage — as Liang layers on thrashing guitars and giallo-style electro-synth music from composer Mahuia Bridgman-Cooper for effect. Dudes have been doing this kind of crazy greenscreen nonsense for ages, and now it’s her turn to give it a go, so why hold back? With a fully committed Moretz to rely on, Liang’s free to shoot for the moon. She doesn’t even need to stick the landing, since dismantling this flying toy box and crashing it into the ground proves so much more gratifying.